‘Money can’t buy life’ (Bob Marley). ‘We are beggars – this is true’ (Martin Luther). ‘Happy…’ (Raphael). ‘Now God be with you, my dear children; I have breakfasted with you, and shall sup with my Lord Jesus Christ this night’ (Robert Bruce).
As the regular writer of this column, I believe that last words are important. Although I confess both a foolishness and a propensity to go over my word count, I disagree with Karl Marx, who on his deathbed apparently barked: ‘Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.’
Over the past 18 months, it has been a great joy and privilege to write this ‘Last Word’ column. Yet, in a few weeks, Lord willing, my family and I shall be moving to the USA. There I will be taking up a pastoral position at Trinity Church Nashville. Nashville is where my wife hails from, where my in-laws live, and the opportunity to serve a rapidly-growing church with two of my closest friends was too great to pass up. I shall miss Britain so very dearly, but in a few weeks, we head across the pond. I am, hence, laying down my editorial red pen this week. This is my last issue before the Revd David Baker takes the en baton. I wish him all the very best.
‘So, what will be my last ‘Last Word’? Well, rather than one last word, I’ve gone for two final exhortations. They are not spoken by some insightful artist or theologian on his deathbed, but rather a young minister sailing away from a British evangelicalism that he loves.
1. Be narrow-minded and be wide-hearted
This astute imperative is not my own, but one that a dear friend in ministry gave me. I’ve always remembered it. The phrase is neatly balanced, yet it’s not a call to avoid two extremes. Evangelicals should be ever narrowing their minds and widening their hearts. Of course, we should not be narrow-minded in the sense of being blinkered or bigoted. But we should be looking to grow deeper in every aspect of our faith – Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, Christology, Ecclesiology,
etc. – in order that we can prepare the next generation of British evangelicals. My current impression, however, is that many Christians in our country just have just two gears: primary and secondary. There is, of course, great wisdom in thinking through issues that stop someone being raised from death to everlasting life and issues which are not so grave.
However, I fear today these gears have become: What I must know and what I don’t really need to think about; or worse, important and irrelevant. These sentiments often fall under the holy guise of ‘we must not be divided… we must preach the gospel… we must not move on from it’. Yet we are called to serve up ‘solid food’ to those growing in Christ. Indeed, if we want the next generation of British evangelicals to be strong in the face of a muscular secularism, we must not be afraid to feed them with more than just evangelistic sermons.
Yet coupled with flabby-mindedness amongst some is a swelling narrow-heartedness amongst others. In some quarters, sadly, uncharitableness and unkindness thrive. This mindset is not just confined to evangelical circles or in fact this country. Many Christians have adopted the values of the Western world when it comes to how we handle our disagreements with one another. Either we take someone aside and try to silence them in a corner. Or we go online and seek to destroy them with 280 deadly characters, or perhaps a cutting gif downplayed as ‘British banter’.
But, by interacting with one another in such immediate and shorthand form, we minimise genuine theological or pastoral issues; or the unkindness causes the brother or sister to be more aggrieved than reflective. What happened to the long walk with the brother or sister with whom we disagree? Or a carefully-worded letter filled with encouragement that simply seeks to understand another’s position better? Or a phone call that ends in a time of prayer? ‘Be peaceable and considerate, and always be gentle towards everyone’ (Tit. 3:2).
2. Focus on your local gathering as you patiently wait for the one glorious gathering
There are some wonderful parachurch ministries in the UK, which have been a huge blessing to me. And in the coming years British evangelicals will no doubt have to increasingly club together to keep theological institutions and mission agencies afloat. Some of us may well need to abandon isolationist tendencies and serve those who are not in our constituency.
Nevertheless, the right aspiration to work together, and the understandable desire to be a part of something bigger than our Sunday gathering has squeezed the importance of the local church.
Some local pastors wonder if they might ascend to be the next General Secretary or Director; many lay elders spend their time planning the next campus of the big hub church; and church members now speak primarily about people in their network/ tribe/affiliation. Consequently, for many the local church is no longer the primary domain of their discipleship. This all seems somewhat odd to me when Jesus designed the local church to be: the earthly institution that would represent him to the world (Matt. 18:15-20); the place where we may practice submission to our leaders (Heb. 13:17); and the loving home where it is easiest to live out the many ‘one another’ commands of the New Testament.
Yet such a focus upon the local gathering must not stoke a forgetfulness about the universal gathering. One day, all local churches will close as the universal church is gathered up to worship our Lord and faith becomes sight – what a glorious day that will be!
Accordingly, British evangelicals must remember that happy tomorrow. Nurturing that hope in a perfect tomorrow helps us to live well in an unfair world today. It helps us act well when it comes to social-political issues. British evangelicals, and Christians everywhere, should not do nothing as they face increasing persecution from a society that moves further away from Christian morals, but remembering our heavenly gathering with Christ will help us to act like Him when more injustices come. ‘When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.’ (1 Pet. 2:21).
We long for heavenly justice to be seen on earth and Christians in every era must faithfully uphold the truth; but our political influence will wax and wane. And, however disillusioned we may be with our current political climate, we don’t deride God-given authority, nor do we correlate Jesus’ Great Commission with cultural transformation, nor do we presume earthly victory.
Until that great day we remember that God is watching us and is with us every day. Let me borrow the last words of John Wesley: ‘The best of all is, God is with us. Farewell! Farewell!’
Jonathan Worsley is also pastor of Kew Baptist Church, London